Commentary

The Financial Limits on Political Competition

By Patrick Basham
March 28, 2003

Who’d be a congressional challenger these days? Only the most naïve candidate or fervent partisan could interpret the 2002 midterm results as anything other than a giant “Help NOT Wanted” sign stationed atop the Capitol Hill steps.

The incumbent reelection rate last November was 98.5 percent. Only four incumbents lost their seats to non-incumbent competitors. Not only do incumbents win more often than they used to do, but they win by increasingly wide margins. In the 2002 election, the average winning margin of a successful House candidate was an imposing 30 percent.

The latest round of campaign finance regulation will only make the problem worse. Instead of deregulating the system to allow unrestricted donations to come to the aid of under-financed challengers, the provisions of The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 prescribe a new limit on hard money donations that is worth 40 percent less, in real terms, than the limit enacted back in 1974.

And, boy, do challengers need more money. A review of the 2002 candidates’ campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission reveals a glaring, and growing, disparity between incumbents and challengers, irrespective of partisanship.

In 1994, the average Democratic challenger was out-raised by a ratio of 8 to 1 by the average Republican incumbent. By 2002, the disparity-Democratic challenger to GOP incumbent — stood at 13 to 1. Eight years ago, the average Republican challenger found himself out-raised by a 10 to 1 ratio by the average Democratic incumbent. That ratio is now 18 to 1. Furthermore, of the 50 richest House campaigns in 2002, only two belonged to challengers.

Considerable blame lies with contribution limits. Contribution limits ensure an uneven campaign-playing field. They greatly reduce the likelihood that a challenger will successfully oust an incumbent because it’s difficult for a challenger to oust an incumbent unless the former spends at least as much as-and probably more than-the latter during the campaign. Only by accepting and spending large sums can a challenger develop the levels of name recognition, issue identification, and voter mobilization to catch up with the years of subsidized campaigning and pork barrel spending that characterize an incumbent’s terms in office.

Incumbency is now so entrenched that many voters lack any real say in who represents them. Incumbents share a semi-perpetual easement on their seats that more nearly resembles hereditary entitlement than the competitive politics we associate with a democracy.

The next election is only 20 months away. Alas, due to the over-regulation of politics, the next competitive election isn’t even visible on the horizon.

Patrick Basham is senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.